Below are the beautiful words shared by Sarah Palay (Davis Academy Class of 2006) at our Class of 2014 graduation.
Hello Davis Academy Class of 2014!!! Congratulations.
You are now entering an amazing new juncture in your life: up until now, your path has been—more or less—dictated for you. You have some freedom, but now is the time when you get a little bit more. But of course with more freedom comes great responsibility, and that is both scary and incredibly exciting.
As you enter high school, you will all have very different experiences, but take comfort that as you begin to diverge down different paths, you all come from the same root: your Judaism and your education at the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy will always accompany you. You will forever be tied to this place, these experiences, and these relationships because you are young students learning the significance of Judaism in the twenty-first century world. And you have made lasting memories with people you care about. Where you go from here is up to you, but no matter what you choose or where you go, Davis will always be a part of you. I stand here today as an example of that. I could not have imagined that I would be back here, standing behind this podium, speaking to a group of seventy-two magnificent graduating eighth graders.
I could stand up here and give you a speech about success. I could tell you that Davis has prepared you well, and you will all succeed. But you already know that…so I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about the opposite of success. Tonight, I want to speak about failure.
So often we perceive failure as a deterrent from success, pitted as success’s binary. Failure, in our society, is profoundly negative. Look up “to fail” in the dictionary, and you’ll read that it means “to be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal.” I am, quite possibly, the dictionary’s biggest fan, but the dictionary is…wait for it…wrong. I would like to argue tonight that this definition is very far from the truth. My hope is that by the end of tonight, we will all write letters to the Oxford American Dictionary and demand that they amend the definition so that the entry reads: “to fail: a necessary step in the achievement of one’s goal.”
So here we are, in a world where failure is the exact antonym of success. But what if it weren’t? What if instead of beating ourselves up when we stray from the path towards success, we embrace our mistakes, lean into them, and learn from them? Easier said than done, I know. I am speaking to a room full of high achievers and their parents and the cold, hard truth is that no one here likes to mess up. Especially me. I am about to share with you a lesson that has had a huge impact on my life but that I have found very difficult to accept: the moment you stop embracing the possibility for failure is the moment you stop achieving.
This concept was brought to my attention two years ago by a very valued teacher and mentor of mine. Fall of junior year at college, I received the honor of playing Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret. We spent six weeks of rehearsals singing, dancing, and sweating our way through this huge show. The rehearsal process was grueling. It was both physically and emotionally exhausting, and I was in constant doubt of my ability to perform this role. Finally, we opened the show and although I didn’t feel it was the “perfect performance,” I let myself off the hook and accepted it for what it was. The following day, I received an email from the director, Anna, asking if we could meet a few hours before the next performance. Anna and I met backstage, and she asked me how I felt the performance went.
The reality was that I was disappointed in myself: every time I performed the show, I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Anna said, “You should be proud of what you’ve done,” and then added, “but I feel like you’re just going through the motions.” I was completely taken aback…it’s one thing to criticize yourself, but it’s another to receive it from one of your mentors, the very person from whom you crave support and praise. Maybe you can understand the feeling I’m talking about: the feeling of wanting something so badly, of reaching for it, of putting your heart and soul into it, but just feeling completely inadequate. Anna looked at me and could tell I was upset, and she said, “Sarah, you are absolutely paralyzed by your fear of being wrong. Give yourself permission to fail.”
At first, I was angry: it wasn’t fair for Anna to put me in this position a few hours before I was about to walk on stage; the theater house was packed with hundreds of people, and my director had just completely rattled me. And I wasn’t really sure what her point was. How could I give myself permission to fail? Wouldn’t that derail the show? I was frustrated, upset, and overwhelmed. I just wanted to do it right. Then suddenly, it dawned on me. That was the problem—wanting to do it right. I was so scared of doing something wrong that I was holding myself back. I was playing it safe and so paralyzed by the fear of failure that I wasn’t taking any risks. As soon as I gave myself permission to mess up, I suddenly reached a new level. That night, I performed in a state of fear, but the fear was very different—it wasn’t the debilitating fear of messing up; it was the exhilarating fear of walking into something unknown, the fear of taking a risk. And it was through that fear, the exhilarating fear, that I found joy and solace.
We all have moments when we put limits on ourselves: when you kept quiet as you watched a friend start an untrue rumor about another friend because you were scared of being the next victim; when you threw out that creative writing assignment that would have received a high grade because you were too scared of potential criticism about your deepest thoughts; when you would have aced that algebra exam had you not been too embarrassed to ask for help; when you had something meaningful to add to the class discussion but you stayed quiet, afraid others around you would dismiss your comment. These are all missed opportunities.
During your life, there will be pressure to produce answers, to solve problems, to achieve perfection, to do things the right way, the best way. And strive for that. Strive for that with everything you have. But if you encounter fear or difficulty, embrace it; don’t push it away. Like the fear of attending a new school or being in a new environment. It can be scary entering a new place, but see it as an opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to discover new friendships, to speak up in class discussions, or to be yourself. If you are too careful and too afraid to screw up, you will limit yourself. As the great J.K. Rowling once said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.”
As I look around this room, I see the faces of the next generation of leaders. I have no doubt that Davis Academy has prepared you to achieve greatness. But as you go forth in your journey, Class of 2014, do not be paralyzed by the fear of failure, but instead allow yourself to take risks and plunge bravely into the unknown. This is the threshold where you turn something mediocre into something good; something good into something great; and something great into something truly sublime. Class of 2014, dare to fail. Congratulations!